Women’s Hoops Salaries Soar As Crowds Dwindle

Yesterday, we discussed the unfair nature of letting lower-seeded teams host games in the women’s NCAA tournament. And while the wild crowd at the Breslin Center helped push Michigan State to a stunning upset of Duke, other venues were not quite so fortunate. 10th-seeded San Diego State got to host second-seeded Stanford but drew only 3,651 fans in the 12,000+ seat Cox Arena. In venues where none of the home teams were playing, attendance lagged well below 3,000. Only 1,292 showed up for games in Los Angeles.

women's bb crowd

(where are all the fans?)

The NCAA decided a while ago to go to pre-determined sites for the women’s tournament, then put as many teams at home as possible, regardless of seeding. So this not only creates unfair matchups, but also kills any hope of drawing crowds in towns with no qualifying team. It used to be that the high seeds would host the first weekend, which would almost certainly draw higher crowds than this, right?

And what’s making the flailing attendance even more eye-opening? Salaries for women’s coaches are soaring.

The ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH says that the coaches of the top 25 women’s programs average about $450,000 per year in pay, compared to about $100,000 ten years ago. And while that’s great in some respects, it somewhat ignores the fact that women’s college hoops pulls in just a fraction of the revenue that men’s programs generate. The goal of making men’s and women’s coaches equal in pay might sound only fair, but doing so costs athletic departments hundreds of thousands of dollars (which they have to cut in other sports).

UConn and Tennessee can justify paying Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt huge contracts because their programs are well supported, but the vast majority of women’s teams are playing in mostly-empty arenas.

Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, who left a $500,000-a-year deal at Michigan State to make $750,000 at Duke (and believe me, a lot of D1 football coaches don’t make anywhere near that), at least acknowledges that men’s and women’s hoops are on a different scale:

“They have a different market,” said McCallie, whose deal at Duke is estimated to be at least $750,000. “We don’t have TV paying what they’re paying (the men). We have to continue to drive that. The women’s basketball market has grown tremendously, but you can’t argue that it’s the same market.”

Where women’s basketball needs to show growth, though, is in the NCAA tournament. Sure, the Final Four does well, but beyond that the games are played in front of loads of empty seats. John Ryan of the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS has a pretty easy solution:

Years ago, when the top four seeds got to host the games, the women’s tournament really seemed to be taking off. Maples Pavilion would sell out, and it would rock for the two games Stanford played. Sure, it was a huge advantage, but at least Stanford had earned it. And the event had energy.

Now? Every time ESPN shows someone shooting a free throw, the dominant image is the totally empty area behind the opposite backboard. Teams that had been granted first-round games end up not making the tournament. USC had a down year, so its Galen Center drew Cal, Fresno State, Virginia and Marist. The announced attendance of 1,292, as low as that sounds, looks like a wild exaggeration. The scene played itself out around the country in places such as Chattanooga, Tenn. (announced crowd 2,424 for four out-of-state teams) and Lubbock, Texas (2,748 for three teams from the state but without non-qualifier Texas Tech).

Aside from the dead look and feel of the arenas, the NCAA is losing millions of dollars in ticket sales.

It’s pretty clear: Go back to letting the top seeds host.

I’m all for trying to treat the men’s and women’s tournaments as similarly as possible, but you can’t just will them to be equal. And Ryan’s absolutely right — it’s ludicrous to think that you can draw big crowds to neutral sites for the early rounds, especially for premium ticket prices. And it’s equally insane to keep letting lower-seeded teams hosting important games.